Rockin’, Rollin’ and Readin’ the American Counter-Culture

October 25, 2019

Some people are born to rock, but others are born to teach it. Students in Prof. James Carter’s History of Rock ‘n’ Roll class know this better than anyone. They spend their Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 10:25 to 11:40 a.m. listening to their professor energetically regale them with the historical events necessary for the creation of bands and artists like Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. 

 COURTESY OF 60SBLOG.COM

 

“I’m a life-time fan [of rock ‘n’ roll],” Carter said. “I taught for 20 years ‘50s, ‘60s, Cold War and Vietnam and when you teach the modern U.S. stuff you end up using a lot of music to teach it, or at least I did. So I decided probably about three years ago to just go ahead and develop a stand-alone History of Rock ‘n’ Roll course.”

 

Carter, who continues to learn more and more about rock each day through his own research (some of which has included delving into past issues of The Acorn from the ‘60s and ‘70s to track down big names who played at Drew including Bob Dylan and The Who), is deeply passionate about the subject and aims to give students a comprehensive grasp of the historical circumstances and musical developments which preceded rock ‘n’ roll, as well as how rock ‘n’ roll matured into the later rock movement.

 

The course, which Carter has taught a few times before, begins with a discussion of Tin Pan Alley and the American music industry of the early twentieth century. It talks about how rock music took from African-American blues and folk traditions for both musical content and subject matter, featuring gritty vocals, messy guitar playing, dark and sexual themes, and aspects like call-and-response vocals and yodeling.

 

“It’s [a course] much more about the context,” Carter said. “When we talk about the 1960s we are talking about that era and that political, social and cultural context and then we’re building it out with songs and musical genres and the evolution of the industry. It’s kind of history through music and music through history. It isn’t just musicology, it also just isn’t the political history of an era.”

 

Students examine how post-war political climates spurred the creation of a rebellious counter-culture where young people identified as decidedly working-class by wearing blue jeans, tight t-shirts and listening to rock ‘n’ roll music. He covers topics like the rise of the recording industry and the role of radio and disc jockeys, like Alan Freed, in the distribution of rock ‘n’ roll music.

 

The class also goes beyond the death of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ‘60s to study its maturation into rock music during the Vietnam War era, which featured more adult themes like sexual ambiguity and political unrest. The final projects that students must complete for the class is the creation of a cohesive “album” of songs from a certain era in the history of rock, complete with liner notes like one could find on vinyl and CDs.

 

Carter said that he offers The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll as often as he can possibly get away with and that it is a part of his permanent rotation, so interested students can bet this isn’t the last time they will see it listed in the course catalogue. 

 

Next semester, Carter is teaching a special topics course on the history of the atomic bomb called “The Atom Bomb and the Arms Race”. He will also be teaching U.S. Foreign Relations, History of the Vietnam War and U.S. History since 1945.

 

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